Thursday, August 14, 1997

China and Seamus Ryan

It is almost four decades since our younger and more agile legs raced up the iron staircase of the Christian Brothers Schools in St. John’s Lane. In the intervening years the former classmates have scattered throughout the world and have never since come together again as a group. Regretfully the premature passing of the late Gerry Byrne made that an impossibility from an early date.

Last week however I caught up with one classmate whom I had not met since a celebration some years to honour the memory of his father and great teacher, Bill Ryan. The classmate was Seamus Ryan, now a medical doctor practising in the International Medical Center in Beijing, capital of China. I was on a visit to the Middle Kingdom as China was termed by the explorer Marco Polo, and of course used the opportunity to renew acquaintances with Seamus. Contact was first made through another classmate, Michael Robinson, formerly of McDonnell Drive, and now of Australia who keeps in regular contact with Athy.

Seamus has spent almost 12 months in China after a number of years in the Middle East. Originally following in the footsteps of his father Bill, Seamus qualified as a teacher, but embarked on a medical career after further studies in Dublin. Working amongst the people of the World’s oldest living civilisation provides Seamus with many fascinating contrasts.

Culturally and ideologically China is a world apart from Ireland. With the largest population of any country in the World, China, despite it’s efforts at population control still accounts for every fourth child born today. This puts tremendous demands on a country where the arable land accounts for only 15% of the entire country. The Chinese Government have imposed very strict regulations with regard to birth control. Married couples are allowed to have one child only. Exceptions are made in the country areas where there is a need for labour to work the land. For that reason rural couples whose first child is a girl can have a second child, but no more. Strict penalties are imposed against those breaking the Government Rules on birth control, including heavy fines and the loss of employment.

In a country which is slowly changing from a socialist to a market economy, the standard of living is improving, but understandably still lags far behind Western countries. The average yearly income for city dwellers is approx. £380, while in the country area the figure is closer to £180 a year.

The grand scale of the Chinese world can be imagined when locals refer to cities of one million population as being of moderate size. The larger cities have populations of approx. fourteen million or so and there are several cities of that proportion. Public transport is not yet up to Western standards, but this is of little consequence in a country where the bicycle is much in use. The bicycle rush hour in Beijing or Shanghai is something awesome to behold as thousands of cyclists travel along the designated bicycle lanes in a seemingly unbroken pattern of wheels. Traffic movement on the roads is another unusual element of Chinese life which almost seems to mirror the Chinese peoples attitude to life itself. For them, unnecessary confrontation is always to be avoided and as you watch the traffic weave in and out avoiding pedestrians, cyclists and motorists alike, you begin to understand how it is that so many people can live together in such harmony. Traffic moves purposely yet slowly as the people and machines untangle themselves without great difficulty and always with the greatest of grace and apparent ease. The traffic police manning the junctions are immaculately turned out, always standing to attention, never lounging, while directing the traffic with smart synchronised movements of both hands, reminiscent of the most carefully choreographed performance.

It’s the rural life of China which gives someone from the rich heartland of Ireland the greatest surprise. Every tiny piece of arable land is cultivated. Even in the most mountainous region bordering on the Yangstze River small patches of land have been carved out of the hills and brought into productions. These stepped areas confirm the industry and energy of the Chinese and the pressing need for food production in their country. Nowhere is left untilled. Small patches of soil clinging to a rockface bear the evidence of mans hand and natures bounty in a rich harvest of crops. People, whether toiling in the fields or on these mountainous patches of soil, for they are no more than that, do so without machinery, constantly bending and lifting. That their efforts produce sufficient food for the more than one billion Chinese on the mainland is a lesson for the more richly endowed countries of the world.

All farming land is owned by the State, but in contract to the communist communal system of a few years ago, individuals can now lease or rent arable land. With such a high population and so little land suitable for cultivation, it is not surprising to find that each farmer and his family works less than half an acre, depending on the number of able bodied persons in that family. In turn, the farmers have to sell a quota of their grain to the State, but are free to dispose of the rest of their crop as they see fit.

One aspect of Chinese life which is disturbing concerns the numbers executed each year for apparently minor crimes. More persons were executed in China last year than in the rest of the entire World. Upwards of 4,500 executions were logged, although many more deaths are suspected, although unproven. China has the highest number of capital offences than any other country and many persons are executed each year for offences as minor as theft and even hooliganism.

The Communist Party which governs the country through the Central Committee does not tolerate anything which might subvert the country’s interest. Recently two Tibetans who had merely compiled a list of Tibetan political prisoners were sentenced to long jail terms for alleged espionage. Similarly one of the student leaders of the 1987 Tianaman Square Rally who was originally sentenced to four years imprisonment was last year re-sentenced to another eleven years on other charges arising out of the same Rally. These are some of the disquitening features of life in China today where an Athy man works among the Beijing community.

On his days off Seamus Ryan can visit the Grand Canal which links the capital Beijing with outlying regions, no doubt thinking of the similarly named corridor of water which links his native Athy with Dublin. The name of the two canalways is their only similarity as the Chinese Grand Canal is of massive proportions, extending over 1,800 km. in length. It was built over 1,500 years ago, confirmation if such was required of the existence of a well developed society in early China.

The old Christian Brothers School in St. John’s Lane is represented in many parts of the World today, but surely Seamus Ryan’s posting in Beijing provides the most unusual contrast, socially and culturally with our own country.

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